Why Sensory “Calm Down” Bottles Work

Have you ever found yourself working with or caring for a child who becomes so overstimulated or upset that nothing seems to help them calm down?

While there are many whole-body sensory calming strategies that can be used to help kids calm and regulate their bodies, they aren’t always available or effective in certain contexts. Wouldn’t it be nice if, when your kid is having a meltdown in the car, grocery store, classroom, Grandma’s house, or even your own house, you had a go-to sensory tool you could provide to help him or her calm down?

Enter the “Calm Down” Bottle.

I first discovered it on Pinterest thanks to In Lieu of Preschool and then dug a little deeper to find the original post published at My Crazy Blessed Life.

Calm Down Bottle

Calm Down Bottles from My Crazy Blessed Life

Just as newborns (especially premies) learn to regulate their breathing, heart rate, and body temperature through an outside source (i.e., skin-to-skin contact with their new parent), older kids often require an outside source in order to learn how to regulate their physiological and emotional responses to stressors.

In OT we call this “learning to self-regulate”. Some common self-regulation strategies preschool-aged kids (or older) can use to successfully calm themselves include deep breathing, wrapping themselves tightly in a blanket, self-massage or “dots and squeezies” up the hands and arms, wall push-ups, rocking in a rocking chair, swinging on a park swing, retreating to a dark, quiet space, laying on or under a beanbag chair, and so much more.

Most toddlers and preschoolers (and even older kiddos) are not able to self-regulate and often require some sort of instruction or model for how to respond to emotional- or sensory-based stressors. This is especially true for many children with autism and sensory processing difficulties. These kiddos often require co-regulation, which means regulation strategies must be initiated or demonstrated by another person. (Side note: Family pets such as dogs tend to be wonderful co-regulators for children, especially those with autism. Some are even trained as therapy dogs for that specific purpose.)

From an OT perspective, these Calm Down Bottles are a nice tool for helping kids transition from co-regulation to self-regulation.

If a child is so upset she cannot be consoled or engaged in other calming activities (like she doesn’t want to be touched, hugged, or talked to), these Calm Down Bottles can serve as a visual “anchor” in order to bring her focus into one place when it may feel like her world is spinning out of control. She can shake the bottle as hard as she wants (so don’t use a glass bottle), and this provides calming proprioceptive input to her body while also serving as a physical outlet that is less destructive than hitting or kicking. While she holds the bottle and watches the glitter fall, her hands and eyes are brought to midline and this can help organize and center her nervous system as well. And as her heart pounds and she demonstrates fast, shallow breathing from being so upset, the slow fall of the shaken glitter can serve as a visual model that, often unconsciously, can slow her heart rate and respiration.

At first the use of a Calm Down Bottle will likely need to be initiated by the adult. As with most calming strategies, it should be introduced to the child before she is ever upset so she knows what it is and how it works. Additionally, it will likely be the most effective when given to the child before she completely escalates and is totally inconsolable. Most calming strategies will be most effective when implemented before kids get to that “point of no return”. Shake up the bottle, hand it to the child, and see what she does. If, after repeated introductions, you find the Calm Down Bottle is an effective tool (like this momthis mom, and this mom did), then it’s possible you’ve found something to help your kiddo transition to self-regulation!

Sensory Calm Down Bottle

Calm Down Bottle in action, from In Lieu of Preschool

The transition to self-regulation occurs when your child initiates use of the Calm Down Bottle as a self-calming tool. This may mean she asks for it or just goes and gets it herself when she starts to feel overwhelmed, overstimulated, or upset. You will have to be the judge of whether she needs to be left alone or if, after a certain number of minutes, you can sit with her in order to be a part of the calming process by talking to her about her feelings, using additional calming strategies, or simply just being there with her.

I remember learning in school that it takes the human body about 20 minutes to fully calm down after becoming upset or excited. Basically, it takes that long for the body to “call off the attack” and return itself to its original, non-stressed state. So keep this in mind when watching or helping your child recover from a stressful episode, whether it was due to sensory overload or an emotional breakdown.

Calm Down Bottles are really easy to make. Click here to find out how. 

You can even have your child help you make the bottle. By involving her in the process she can develop some ownership over it, plus she also gets to practice some fine motor strengthening and hand-eye coordination as she squeezes the glue and sprinkles the glitter in the bottle!

Have you ever seen or used a Calm Down Bottle? Got any tips you’d like to share? 

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Mama OTIn addition to being mama to two sweet little boys and wife to a crazy awesome husband, Christie is a Registered & Licensed Occupational Therapist (OTR/L). She holds a B.A. in Psychology with a Minor in Education from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA...Go Bruins!), and an M.A. in Occupational Therapy from the University of Southern California (USC OT). She has experience working as a pediatric OT in early intervention (birth to 3), clinic-based, and school-based settings. Her mission with MamaOT.com is to encourage, educate, and empower those who care for children. Christie loves that she gets to PLAY when she goes to work, is hopelessly addicted to Kettle Corn, and is known for being able to turn virtually anything into a therapeutic tool or activity, from empty food containers to laundry and everything in between. Learn more about Christie and what inspired her to become an OT.

Occupational therapy (OT) is a holistic profession that helps people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities, also known as “occupations”. Some OTs help people diagnosed with disability, injury, or disease. Others help prevent disability, injury, or disease. Because of occupational therapy, people of all ages are able to say, "I can!" no matter what their struggle. Isn't that amazing?!

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23 thoughts on “Why Sensory “Calm Down” Bottles Work

  1. Hello,
    Have you ever heard of or seen calm down bottles used for patients with Alzheimer’s? I have used bags made with gel before and that seems to calm them down. I will try it and see what happens. Thanks again for your OT explanations on why things work. It really helps.

    • No I haven’t, Christina, but I can see how that would be very effective with adults with Alzheimer’s. Have you tried lava lamps with them? Similar effect, I would imagine. You’ll have to let me know how it works out.

  2. Thanks so much for explaining the process of how children move from co-regulation to self-regulation. The bottles look lovely, but I hadn’t read a good explanation about HOW to use them, until now!

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    • Once a child is able to be able to sit with or near the bottle, then they are probably old enough. This could depend on the child but, if I had to estimate, I’d say approximately age two and above. Hope this helps.

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    • I’m sure other people have discovered a neater, more elegant way to seal them, but I always used hot glue. And yes, it was messy. Through trial and error, I found that putting the glue around just the top inside circumference of the lid worked best. It makes a fairly good seal with the mouth of the bottle. At least, it seems to work better than gluing the threads of the cap. Hope that’s helpful to someone!

      • Gorilla glue is really good also and you are not so time bound to get the cap in place. I use decorative duct tape wrapped around the top as extra protection. I also use a good water bottle, like Dasani, or one that is really strong. The cheap water bottles make me nervous b/c I worry that they could easily be punctured.

  7. Thanks for explaining the self-regulation! I have seen these all over the internet, but was not exactly sure how it related to OT (future OT here!). Now I’m confident I can explain why they might be effective for the kiddos- I’m making some for a Level 1 Autism class I help out in 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  8. I was planning on making one of these for my toddler as nothing more than a fun craft but started thinking about my autistic (teenage) nephew. After coming across this article, I feel more confident that this will help him self-regulate. Sending this article to his mom, too. Thank you so much for the information.

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  10. omg! this is the best thing ever since sliced bread!!!!! it is something for the child to concentrate on…rather then the punishment…it’s not a looong time out….I am sending this to my grandkids for their kids….amazing, I love it, and I want one and I am 71 years old—-I am going to have a “craft night” and host this amazing concept party. Thank you so much for creating something beautiful and NOT hurtful.
    Great Grandma (GGMA in Portland, OR) 🙂 xo

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So, whadya think?